Grey Matter Episode 9: The Second Amendment Part 2: Weapons Bans

“The Second Amendment Part 2: Weapons Bans”
by Kaitlin Puccio

One reaction to mass shootings and an increase in the number of gun crimes recorded across the U.S. has been to float the idea of an assault weapons ban. There are several concerns raised on both sides by the possibility of such a ban.

On one side, the argument (aside from the argument that it infringes on an individual’s Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms) is that it would not address the issue it has set out to address; criminals will get their weapons illegally, so the individuals being prevented from buying these weapons are law-abiding citizens. This leaves criminals as the only ones with these weapons.

On the other side, the response is that even for law-abiding citizens who want to use guns for self-defense against criminals with assault weapons, there is no need for the former to use assault weapons for self-defense when other guns will serve the same purpose—and this applies to recreational gun use as well, such that if an individual shoots guns for sport, there are plenty of legal gun options that would remain on the table.

The response from the other side to the self-defense issue is that one cannot enter a fight with one hand tied behind his back; to the recreation issue, the response might be that in the U.S., the grip of a gun is a large part of what determines whether it is defined as an assault weapon—this has no practical meaning in the world of recreational shooting, and further, if it is being used for recreational purposes, it doesn’t matter if it’s an assault weapon because it is not being used to hurt anyone.

The driving argument is that there is a need to keep guns out of the hands of individuals who want to use them for nefarious purposes; this outweighs an individual right to own guns for recreation, and there are other methods of self-defense. Even if we accept this argument, the question remains whether an assault weapons ban speaks to the issue. The emotional reaction to tragic events like mass shootings that, “We need to do something!”—with “something” being banning assault weapons—is unproductive. Reaction without reflection gives rise only to busy work. The action taken must be effective, in part so that it does not give rise to opposition.

Anyone can interpret data in a convenient way in order to make it support his or her desired outcome. Some want data to show that stricter gun laws result in fewer shootings, and some want the data to say that they don’t. The data that are not included in reports and studies are important to the accuracy of these statements also, but these are not generally considered. For example, if the argument is that there was a noticeable increase in mass shootings in the years after the first assault weapons ban expired in 2004, the response should be to acknowledge a correlation, but also acknowledge that Facebook launched in 2004, as did Twitter shortly after in 2006. It might be argued that there is a correlation there as well, such that with the rise of social media came a rise in mass shootings. What other factors are we not being shown when we are presented with data from one side or the other?

Both sides agree that the goal is to prevent mass shootings and gun crime, and both sides put forth data that support their own argument about stricter gun laws. But manipulating data does not solve the problem—it only supports the conclusion that one side or the other is “right,” not any actual conclusion about the effects of stricter gun laws. If there is no compelling reason to ban assault weapons (“compelling” meaning that a statement to the effect that “such a ban would cause the number of mass shootings and incidents of gun crime to drop” is supported by unimpeachable evidence), even if there is no compelling reason for individuals to own them, then they should not be taken away.

It has been suggested that most mass shooters do not have a mental illness, but rather experience a severe, sudden stressor that causes them to “break.” This is purportedly why it has been difficult to identify the “red flags,” because in most cases, there are none. This would mean that mass shootings are mostly unpredictable and committed by individuals with a clean background. A standard background check won’t work, then, because the shooter—an everyday Joe prior to his “break”—presumably will not have had any issues with the law or be otherwise disqualified from buying a gun. This may support the argument for an assault weapons ban: Everyday Joe could legally go out and buy an assault weapon.

But if there were a ban on assault weapons, Unhinged Everyday Joe is likely not going to be deterred by the legal unavailability of these weapons. He can get them elsewhere. He can make them. He can use a different type of gun. He can use his car as a weapon. He can build a bomb. Someone who has become unhinged enough to carry out a mass shooting is likely unhinged enough to take extreme measures to bring about destruction by any means. This supports the argument that an assault weapons ban won’t work, and that the real issue is not the weapons themselves—Unhinged Everyday Joe is going to commit mass murder with or without assault weapons; lack of access to one type of weapon will not prevent him from doing so.

What the assault weapons ban actually aims to do is prevent mass murder and other gun crime—it is not, in general, a ban for the sake of a ban or because “guns are bad.” But for mass murderers, where there are no red flags (red flags in some cases may be found on social media, recorded by mental health professionals, etc., but with Unhinged Everyday Joe, this is presumably not the case) and no issue of access to weaponry of some sort, the prevention of the crime seemingly can only be effectuated at the very scene of the crime.

In schools, does this mean locked doors and bulletproof glass? If so, who will pay to install the latter? Does it mean armed security guards and metal detectors? If so, do we want our children growing up in this prison-like environment? In public, does this mean mini TSA screenings to take public transport? Does it mean different infrastructure, such that vehicles are physically prevented from crossing onto pedestrian sidewalks? Increased police presence and surveillance? Would increased surveillance infringe on certain privacy rights? What is the balance between privacy and security? If we were able to use, for example, thermal scanning on an entire crowd, which would indicate certain individuals who are highly stressed (assuming that a mass murderer would be highly stressed before committing the act), would this infringe on the rights of other individuals? And if an individual who has panic attacks induced by crowds is “thermal-scanned” and picked out by security as a possible threat, what are the consequences?

We may not have all the answers, but we need to start by asking better questions instead of trying to be “right.” And it is unlikely, given the possibilities for committing acts of violence that are available to an unhinged individual, that the answer is as neat as an assault weapons ban.

The constitutional argument addressing the assault weapons ban is analyzed in The Second Amendment Part 1: Linguistics

Copyright © 2023 Kaitlin Puccio